Linda Ronstadt had a fantastically musical successful career though she often did what everyone told her not to: mix genres. The rock singer embraced a long list of musical styles, from traditional Mexican music to operetta. “Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderland,” her new book with co-author Lawrence Downes, follows a similar genre-defying path. It’s a travelogue, a memoir, a family history, a photo study, and a cookbook that will transport you to the vast desert that links Arizona and Mexico. It’s as hard to categorize as Ronstadt herself.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
RONSTADT: I just finished Victoria Finlay’s “Fabric.” She’s an anthropologist writing on the history of fabric. It’s just wonderful writing and great information. It turns out most pashmina is fake.
BOOKS: Is that a typical read for you?
RONSTADT: I have a pile of books here on my nightstand. I have “Vagina Obscura” by Rachel E. Gross, which is really good. I read “White Girls” by Hilton Als. I’ve never read anything like it. I also read Colm Tóibín’s “The Magician.” I picked it up because I thought it was a biography of Thomas Mann, one of my favorite writers. It turned out to be a novelization of Mann’s life. Tóibín’s research is so thorough and his writing is so good it was like watching a great biopic.
BOOKS: What are your favorite Mann novels?
RONSTADT: I love “Buddenbrooks.” My friend Kenny Edwards who was in my band recommended “The Magic Mountain,” which I read twice. I started with “Death in Venice” because it is his shortest novel but I couldn’t get into it. Maybe I could now. I understand Thomas Mann a little better.
BOOKS: How do you pick what you read?
RONSTADT: I get a lot of recommendations from NPR and the New York Times. My friend the writer John Rockwell recommended Benoit Mandelbrot’s “The Fractalist,” which is a book about fractal geometry, to me. I didn’t know anything about math. Now I can recognize things that are the products of fractal geometry, but I don’t really understand fractal geometry. Probably only ten people in the world do.
BOOKS: How would you describe your taste in books?
RONSTADT: I can’t stand boring writing. I don’t care about surfing but I read a book about it, William Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days,” because the writing is so good.
BOOKS: Has your taste changed over the years?
RONSTADT: I hardly ever read modern fiction, I’m sorry to say. I wouldn’t have bought “The Magician” if I’d known it was a novel. I like Henry James, Edith Wharton, and the classic Russian novelists. Dickens is tedious to me but I don’t dislike him like I dislike Ernest Hemingway. I don’t like a lot of French stuff but I did like Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” I haven’t read Proust. Maybe I will now that I’m 76. I doubt it.
BOOKS: What was the last classic that you read?
RONSTADT: I read “The Age of Innocence” over and over. I went over to visit the Arion Press here in San Francisco, and they had made a hand-printed edition of it, which I bought. It’s beautiful. I could lick it.
BOOKS: What is your taste in nonfiction?
RONSTADT: I like to read stuff about volcanoes, waves, or wind. My favorite nonfiction writer is John McPhee. He’s so precise and so specific. My favorite of his is “The Curve of Binding Energy.” It’s about physics, which I don’t understand, but his writing is so charming.
BOOKS: Did any of your reading influence you as a musician?
RONSTADT: I think everything you read and see informs your music. People always ask me for advice about becoming a professional musician. I tell them every city you go to go to their museums. Read as much as you can, especially if you are a songwriter. People like Paul Simon have read everything.
BOOKS: What are your reading habits?
RONSTADT: My mind wanders a lot but I can read for a long time. I like reading in the morning best, but read in the afternoon before a nap and at night before bed. I didn’t have a television for 30 years and I read so much then. When Obama was elected I had to keep going over to my friends to see him speak. So I got a television. It cut my reading in half. I discovered the Home Renovation channel.
This interview has been edited and condensed.